It was a chronic thing: Almost every time Erma Taylor’s great-grandson caught a cold, he also ended up having a severe asthma attack. Taylor, a retired nurse, spent many hours at a hospital, helping to hold the toddler for tests and breathing treatments, and wondering what was causing the attacks.
The one thing Taylor never suspected was that something inside the house she shares with her granddaughter and great-grandson was a source. It turned out that mold and mildew from years of shampooing the decades-old carpet were aggravating the little boy’s respiratory system.
The carpeting was replaced with wood flooring and Taylor says she has seen marked improvement.
Many homeowners may be unsuspecting victims of medical problems, from asthma attacks to lung cancer, caused by conditions in their houses, according to a new federal report.
More than 30 million homes have significant health issues, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The trouble is that many homeowners and renters aren’t aware of the link between their housing and their health. Radon exposure, for example, has no immediate symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning can initially resemble the flu. And exposure to some toxins may be confused with seasonal allergies.
“In our cars, we have oil and check engine lights,” says Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing. “There’s no such light for a house.”
A federal interagency body called the Healthy Homes Work Group released a report, Advancing Healthy Housing: A Strategy for Action, in February, with the goal of reducing the number of homes with health and safety hazards over the next five years.
But, federal officials and experts say, a reduction in illness and accidents depends heavily on consumers being vigilant about the dangers in their homes.
“People spend more time looking at the kitchen countertops than they do at issues that can cause serious health problems,” says Nancy Harvey Steorts, a realty agent in Virginia and author of Your Home Safe Home.
Could your house be making you sick? Here are some common household hazards and some tips on how you can address them:
Asbestos and arsenic have been removed from most new building materials, but Morley and other health advocates are wary of the lack of testing and regulation of building materials.
In recent years, VOCs, short for volatile organic compounds — found in paints and formaldehyde and in the glue used to make some furniture, cabinets and wood paneling — have been been a focus of health concerns.
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a measure limiting formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, but the rules haven’t taken effect yet.
Exposure to formaldehyde can cause burning sensations in the eyes and throat, and difficulty in breathing. It can also cause cancer, according to government scientists. Exposure to VOCs can cause headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
A qualified home inspector can point out possible dangers in building materials, including the presence of asbestos in insulation, lead in plumbing fixtures and formaldehyde in paneling or cabinets. While it may not be possible to identify all materials visually, an inspector can tell you what was common, based on the age of your home.
Except for secondhand smoke, radon is the single most prevalent and deadly home health issue for children, Paulson says.
A radon test — ranging from about $13 for a do-it-yourself kit to $150 for a professional test — should be part of a home inspection, experts say.
Mold and pests
Plumbing leaks and poor insulation are the main cause of mold and pests, Steorts says.
Some materials, such as synthetic stucco, are easy to puncture and may allow moisture to seep in, says Vimal Kapoor, president of the Building Inspector of America. An alarm should go off, he says, “if you feel better when you’re out of the house.”
Mold tends to worsen respiratory illnesses, induce asthma attacks and irritate eyes and nasal passages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some studies also suggest more severe effects, including flu-like symptoms.
More surprisingly, cockroaches can be potential triggers of asthma symptoms among children allergic to them, says Stephen Teach, an emergency room physician at Children’s National Medical Center who also runs the asthma clinic.
Decomposing cockroach bodies and their excrement easily become airborne, and can be inhaled into the bronchial tubes.
Other household allergens include dust mites and grease.
Every six months, look for signs of pests and mold and mildew. If you are suspicious about toxins or mold, have an air quality test, experts say.
Because carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, too often, homeowners don’t realize there’s a problem.
Exposure can cause a range of flu-like symptoms, including headaches, dizziness and nausea. But carbon monoxide exposure also can be fatal. Each year, more than 400 deaths are blamed on CO poisoning, according to the CDC.
Gas fireplaces, furnaces, generators and appliances cause most carbon monoxide leaks, Steorts says.
In addition to installing CO detectors, examine all seals around doors and windows annually, paying close attention to the door between house and garage, because CO can leak into homes from cars, Steorts says.